Words by: Naveen Ganglani
Photos by: Karl delos Santos
There’s always a calm and self-assured swagger to Michelle Cobb’s personality. She holds a balance of ease and intensity without bordering on arrogance – a daunting task she makes look effortless. Whenever she’s in a room, it feels as if she’s never not in control, which seamlessly carries over to her immense responsibilities on a volleyball court.
Entering her third season with the DLSU Lady Spikers, Cobb finds herself in a new situation; it’s one that will arguably challenge her in ways she hasn’t been before as she hits the half-way mark of her already-successful UAAP career.
As a rookie, Cobb had the unique privilege of learning what it takes to play the vastly important role of setter for legendary DLSU head coach Ramil De Jesus under one of the greatest this sport has ever seen, Kim Fajardo. In her second season – her first as the team’s full-time setter – Cobb gradually improved throughout the tournament and eventually passed with flying colors as La Salle won a third straight title, thanks in large to how she was able to set up her teammates for highlight-worthy attacks that rocked arenas.
More importantly, Cobb displayed the type of confidence that leaves little doubt she’s on track to become one of the next great Lady Spikers. At times, her 5-foot-4 frame gives rivals a false sense of superiority, and it’s always a remarkable sight to see the bewildered looks on their faces whenever she converts a sly drop or unexpected block.
But Cobb now faces another task. More than half of La Salle’s Season 81 roster is composed of first-timers in the UAAP senior level, which makes the team’s starting setter one of the veterans De Jesus will rely on for leadership and guidance.
For almost all of La Salle’s rallies on the court, it’s Cobb who determines where the ball is going to go – such is the requirement of her position. And from this year onwards, the words and wisdom she’s going to share to the younger batch of Lady Spikers are going to carry even more weight than before. In a season where De La Salle is aiming for a fourth straight title – something that hasn’t been done in the Final Four era – the significance of that duty is magnified.
“Being a setter, you’re expected to be a leader talaga, kahit na you know you’re not the Team Captain, ganon. It’s the nature of the position itself, you have to be the leader,” Cobb said before the season.
“Since I’m the setter, [Coach Ramil] expects a lot. He expects the leadership there and he expects I’m going to be one of the strong pillars of the team.”
New-comers of the team, like standout rookie Jolina Dela Cruz, Marionne Alba, and Anna Hatulan, plus the girls who are expected to take on larger roles – Norielle Ipac and Rovena Instrella come to mind – won’t have the luxury to pace themselves as the pressure of the UAAP women’s volleyball tournament increases throughout the elimination round. Especially not when the name “La Salle” is in front of their jerseys. A name that’s synonymous with the expectation of “championship-or-bust.”
What Cobb can give these girls, who have to juggle athletic workload (both mental and physical) along with academics and other miscellaneous factors of being young adults, is perspective. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when Michelle, in her own words, was the “fresh meat” of the team.
“I think, [in] my perspective, the pressure was super lala talaga,” Cobb recalled about how last season was for her. That’s why, as she’ll be the first to admit, she sees herself in her youthful, untested teammates.
“I always tell them na everyone goes through it and it’s a matter of experiencing it and learning from it,” she explained.
“One of the main things I consider talaga is experience, and how it helped me talaga, even being part of the championship last year, now being able to play in professional na (for F2 in the PSL). I think everything’s part of a very tedious process that everyone, in order to be a great player, as in you have to go through all of it. If you’re going through all of it, I think it’s normal and it’s part of it.”
Early in Season 81, La Salle had its fair share of ups and downs. The Lady Spikers looked like the easy favorite to repeat as champions following dominant wins over rival Ateneo, Adamson, and NU, a stretch wherein De Jesus’ girls lost only two sets. In that run, Cobb became the early favorite to win Best Setter, Dela Cruz played like the second coming of DLSU legend Ara Galang, and the rest of the team was flawless.
Discipline, swagger, and dominance – the traits which La Salle teams are regularly associated with were on full display once again.
But in the two matchups that followed, DLSU lost a close fight against a UP team that’s coming for the title, and was swept in three sets by a motivated UST squad which just lost one of its best players to injury.
Surprised? Sure, many were. The last time La Salle lost back-to-back games was in the Season 77 finals against Ateneo, when Galang was sidelined.
Though to some degree, Cobb already predicted the difficulties her team was going to face.
“Everyone’s improving, everyone’s trying to go after us. That’s what’s kinda scary, how everyone is improving, and how the level of UAAP now is off the charts talaga,” she said.
Now that doesn’t mean Cobb was saying La Salle was scheduled to suffer consecutive setbacks, nor did she validate that it was acceptable.
What she did was explain how more challenging Season 81 is going to be, especially with the departure of Finals MVP Kim Dy, league MVP Majoy Baron, and Best Libero Dawn Macandili. The onus on Cobb and veterans Des Cheng, May Luna, Ernestine Tiamzon, and Aduke Ogunsanya to deliver on the court while keeping their teammates encouraged will be critical, especially for the girl whose position requires her to be a natural leader.
The good news for the Lady Spikers is that Cobb plays the part very well. When she speaks, she says just the right amount with each word carrying value. Her calm on the court gives a steadying presence for De Jesus and his coaching staff, while her rational outlook will be integral for many of her younger teammates, even if they don’t know it yet.
“It’s not impossible,” she said with a playful smile when asked if La Salle would win another title in 2019.
“Bilog ang bola.”
Article originally published in Vol. 17 No.1 of AnimoMagazine